I was just a little shocked and melancholy when we passed by the sight of our very first Ponoka General Hospital last week, which has now been transformed into an active construction sight, minus a few of those majestic popular trees that stood there for decades.
Of course it is really great that this area will eventually become an exciting new addition to the future of the community, but for those of us who were lucky enough to live here from the 1950s and on it will always have so many vivid memories and a sincere appreciation for it’s close to 35 years of dedicated medical services and extreme care and compassion to thousands of patients of all ages from Ponoka town and county and beyond.
The colourful history of the Ponoka General Hospital
In the very early days the medical needs of this rapidly growing area were served by a handful of physicians and nursing staff who worked out of their homes or small offices around the community, performed table-top surgery, and in many cases had to bravely travel many miles by horse and buggy, car and truck, in horrific conditions to tend to the sick and injured. The only hospitals in the area were in Lacombe, Red Deer, Edmonton, and Calgary, but because of the tremendous demand for medical care many more facilities were added after the war years, and the thriving Ponoka district was finally blessed with their first modern hospital in 1947 at the corner of Railway Street and 57th Avenue.
The extremely busy 24-7 hospital had to expand very quickly to meet the demands, adding a west wing and an operating theatre in 1952 and 1961, and at its peak the 50-bed facility would include a staff of 60, including 30 nurses and 8 doctors. I am going to share a few memories of that milestone historical hospital sight, with certainty that so many generations of our families and individuals will recall and never forget, no matter what the circumstances may have been over the years.
• The parking lot of the Ponoka General Hospital was always full, night and day, with visitors coming to visit family and friends, expectant fathers nervously pacing around the big waiting room or standing behind the nursery glass to get a glimpse of their new son or daughter, local church pastors extending wishes of prayer and care to members of their congregation, and the emergency ambulance bay at the back constantly bringing in the sick and injured. Visiting hours were until 8 p.m. in the evening, after which you had to ring the buzzer at the front door to gain entrance. As always in a small town just about everyone knew everybody, especially in the hospital setting where they kindly shared their care and concern with others in the same precarious situations.
• The nursery at the PGH was always full, especially after the Second World War, and if one looked on the front page of the Ponoka Herald every week you would find the patient’s list as well as lot’s of happy birth announcements on behalf of steadily growing town and county families. As well as the hospital surgery there was also an X-ray room, and an area where they put casts on broken bones or sewed up a nasty cut. Throughout the entire hospital there was the occasional strong smell of ether which was dispensed from a mask to put you to sleep for surgery or other procedures after counting backwards to 10.
• In my early 20s I had to spend nearly three months with in the PGH with stomach and stress problems, and was under the wonderful care of Dr. Des Chesney and an amazing and skilled staff, including the nurses in their stiff white uniforms, the nurses aides, and everyone else who worked together as a team, with the ultimate goals to help calm each and every patient’s fears and distress and to get well as soon as possible. Of course there were also the pills, the tough tasting medicine, the needles, and all the other special treatments, but they are always administered 24-7 with gentle kindness, care, and compassion, no matter how many times you pushed the button beside your bed. The doctors in their long white coats usually came in the morning, hopefully to offer good news, and maybe even a discharge to go home.
• The days are always long when you are a patient in the hospital, but one needs lots of sleep to get better, or maybe a walk down the long hallways for a little exercise, have a game of crib with another patient, and of course hope for lots of visitors. At the old PJH you could lie in your raised bed and read, watch that tiny little TV, enjoy the view across the magnificent Battle River valley, or maybe even get to go out for a stroll or a wheelchair ride around the pristine grounds.
• I am sure that so many of you will vividly remember…the rumble of the food wagon coming down the hall, mandatory baths, cold bed pans, fabulous back rubs, lots of ice cream if you had your tonsils out, that thick white breakfast porridge in which the spoon stood up in, cloth slippers, those long and often drafty gowns that had to be done up at the back, and so many other experiences that were always necessary but which we usually wanted to soon forget.
When the ultra-modern Ponoka Hospital and Care Centre at 5800-57th Avenue opened in the 1980s the Ponoka General Hospital was used for laser research and other purposes, but then stood empty for many years until exciting new development plans were introduced. How very special it is that this grand and vital tradition has carried on over the years and that we have and always will be blessed to have such wonderful medical facilities and community services, first class equipment and technology, and so many skilled and dedicated professional, emergency, and support personnel to take care of our most vital day to day year round needs.